"The Golden Pot" and Other Tales – Hoffmann’s mind is a weird place

In my Mount TBR 2016 Recap, I mentioned how much I loved the original Nutcracker and Mouse King, which left me wanting to read more by E. T. A. Hoffmann.  I was excited to find this little collection of some of his other stories waiting under the Christmas tree: The Golden Pot and Other Tales.

How can I describe Hoffmann?  His writing – his bizarre, funny, gruesome, sometimes tedious writing – precedes Lewis Carroll in many ways.  Hoffmann likes to bewilder his characters, make them question who they are, and encounter all manner of strange people and anthropomorphic animals.  He has an idea and runs with it wholeheartedly.  In a general sense (and in contrast to Carroll), I would say Hoffmann’s stories are fascinating more than they are likeable.

My favorite was the first one, “The Golden Pot” (5 stars).  Anselmus is a young, fanciful calligraphist who gets a job as copyist for a mysterious man, Lindhorst the Archivist.  Lindhorst’s beautiful, yet eerie house is just one of the fantastical elements Anselmus encounters.  I can’t say much more without giving it away, except that I found it to be the most original and intriguing of the stories.

The majority of tales in this volume feature three archetypes:

  • an eccentric, flighty young man, who may or may not be living in the Real World
  • an aggressively seductive woman, the “anti-princess” if you will
  • an angelic, modest, beautiful woman, who is most likely the young man’s fiancee

I wouldn’t be surprised if Hoffmann is used in universities’ literature courses to illustrate the portrayal of women in 19th century literature.  Those two types of female characters are prevalent in that era, and Hoffmann is here typical.  It is really unfortunate that 19th century media – and, indeed, much of modern, 21st century media – chooses to focus on two extremes, rather than on more balanced and realistic female characters.

Clara in “The Sandman” (3 stars) is one exception.  Though she plays a traditional role in the story, she is also levelheaded and refuses to accept the fears of her fiance.  Clara goes even farther – she promises to protect him:

If the hateful Coppola should presume to annoy you in your dreams, I am determined to appear in your presence like your guardian angel and to drive him away with loud laughter.  I am not the slightest bit afraid of him…

Clara is a wonderful character, but unfortunately, Hoffmann relegates her story to that of most thoughtful, intelligent heroines in the 19th century.  Was it because brave, logical females could not be tolerated – or was it because they weren’t “sexy” enough for the readers?

To be fair, in Hoffmann’s world, the male characters aren’t much better, however sympathetic they may be.  In “Princess Brambilla” (2 stars) and “Master Flea” (1 star), the male protagonists are easily swept away by the events (and, of course, the alluring ladies) they meet by accident.  It’s amusing at first, but quickly grows wearisome.  Hoffmann’s strength of committing himself to an idea becomes a weakness, because the plots are more cringeworthy than charming. 

I’m not sure why “My Cousin’s Corner Window” (5 stars) is included, but I liked it.  It is a story of two cousins observing a marketplace from a window.  It has an almost Hawthornesque feel to it, and it reads more like nonfiction.  If you grow tired of the Wonderland-like settings of the other stories, then skip to this one and savor this literary portrait that makes you feel as if you’ve traveled back in time.

Then, O my reader, you may come to believe that nothing can be stranger or weirder than real life, and that the poet can do no more than capture the strangeness of reality, like the dim reflection in a dull mirror. 
– “The Sandman,” p. 98-99

Mount TBR 2016 – Recap

For this recap, something a little different.  I was mighty pleased with the little mountain of to-be-reads I climbed, so everyone’s a winner – and they all get awards!  Thanks to Bev for hosting this challenge!

*** The Unexpected New Favorite Award ***
 An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
This was a thrift store find I bought on a whim.  I was greatly moved by this fictional historical memoir, written by Ishiguro (of The Remains of the Day fame).  An aging Japanese man realizes his past is not creating the bright legacy he had envisioned.  Subtly written, yet incredible.
*** The Finally, Finally Read It Award ***
The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
I liked the beginning of this book a lot.  That made the ending somewhat disappointing.  However, I had to admit it is a worthy American classic, with good writing and thought-provoking scenes.
*** The History Is Disturbing Award ***
Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron – Nicholas Fraser, Marysa Navarro
This is supposedly the best, most judicial biography of Eva Peron out there.  After that masterful T. E. Lawrence biography by John Mack, I was underwhelmed by Fraser and Navarro’s sources; this book read more like magazine articles than a scholarly paper.  More than once, there was a statement that was an opinion, and there was no easy way for me to tell from whence the opinion originated.  Writing aside, the topic matter was chilling.  Eva, Juan, the political situation in Argentina at the time – all of it was very depressing.  An interesting read nonetheless.  Especially pertinent was reading how the Perons controlled the media and depictions of themselves.
*** The Polar History Is More My Thing Award ***
In the Land of White Death – Valerian Albanov
This little book deserves all the glowing reviews it has.  If you’re looking for an introduction to polar literature, I highly recommend the Russian navigator Albanov’s account of his survival trek through the Arctic.  The human element comes through strongly in his narrative; it’s great that he did not edit out the personal side to his story.
*** The I Need to Read More Hoffmann Award ***
Nutcracker and Mouse King and The Tale of the Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas
(Side note: E.T.A. is such a great set of initials.)
I let myself forget the Nutcracker I knew before, and I really, really loved the Hoffmann original.  Dumas’s version is also great, but more polished.  Read them both!  What better month to do so?

*** The Unexpectedly Disappointing Award ***
Tales of Unrest – Joseph Conrad
I’ve come to the conclusion that Conrad wrote in two ways: sheer genius, and not.  This series of depressing (unrestful) tales is not genius.  It’s not great, unfortunately.  I didn’t like any of them.
*** The Terrifying, Also Would Not Recommend Award ***
Dracula’s Guest – Bram Stoker
Friends, when a Goodreads reviewer advises you to skip a story, do not try to be a completionist.  Heed their advice.  They know what they’re talking about.  You don’t need to read all the creepy stories.  You really don’t.
*** The Beautifully Written, Tough to Understand Award ***
Memories of the Future – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
This author was new to me; I read the book because he’s supposed to be similar to Kafka.  Even in translation, Krzhizhanovsky is a lovely writer; his analogies and word choices seem so fresh, even original, compared to other writers.  The trouble is, I was confused most of the time.  I did like the last story, “Memories of the Future,” but it’s very similar to The Time Machine.  Would read more by him in the future (ha. ha.).
*** The Better Than the Movie Award ***
Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi
I’m not big on this fairytale, but it was certainly entertaining.  Pinocchio is such a bad son to Geppetto, and still I felt sorry for him.  Like most fairytales, the amount of exaggeration makes it hard to believe at times (I really think Pinocchio would have learned his lesson faster than he does!).  I’ll probably keep this one, though; it’s definitely a classic.
*** The Childhood Heroine Award ***
Joan of Arc: In Her Own Words
Joan of Arc has always been an inspiration to me.  This books is a compilation of quotes by her, which forms something of an autobiography.  It’s sobering to realize that the main reason we have these quotes is because she was captured and spoke the majority of these statements at her trial.  I really recommend this to anyone who wants to learn more about her.  Reading what she did and said 600 years ago makes you feel both how long ago and recent it was.
*** The Childhood Memory Award ***
The Silent World – Jacques Cousteau
I have a vague memory of watching a Jacques Cousteau film as a child.  He is probably one of the many reasons I grew up with a fascination for all things to do with the ocean.  This memoir talks about Cousteau’s early diving career, his various diving projects, and general opinions on topics related to diving.  It wasn’t gripping, but I learned quite a few things, historical and scientific, and the writing style is accessible.  A good read to learn more about him.
*** The Changed My Life Award ***
Works of Love – Søren Kierkegaard 
I left the sticky notes in this book – and not just the few that are pictured.  It’s difficult to describe a book like this without feeling vulnerable, because I can’t adequately summarize it, and I can’t say I agree with him 100%, and I can’t tell you it’s a must read.  I have no idea how Works of Love affects one reader from the next.  Yes, it changed my life; it made me look at something familiar in a new way.

I think of Kierkegaard as this lonely person who is thinking through everything out loud, and some of it is confusion, and some of it is inspired, and he offers it all up to the reader without apology, because he is only human and never expected to think “perfect” thoughts, only to strive for truth.  I don’t know if that’s Kierkegaard, or me projecting myself onto the impression of him.  I think he was born to write this book, in any case.

Whatever the world takes away from you, thought it be most cherished, whatever happens to you in life, however you may have to suffer because of your striving, for the good, if you please, if men turn indifferent from you or as enemies against you…if even your best friend should deny you – if nevertheless in any of your strivings, in any of your actions, in any of your words you truly have consciously had love along: then take comfort, for love abides. (p. 279)